There’s a temptation to assume that a documentary like Hacking Democracy, about a non-profit organization investigating whether electronic voting machines are responsible for miscounts and stolen elections, is just a liberal conspiracy theory arguing in vain that the 2004 US presidential election (or the 2000 election, for that matter) was manipulated in favor of a Republican outcome. One of the few missteps of the film is that it brings up this subject – and even implies that John Kerry had strong evidence that voter fraud had occurred – and then abruptly drops it. The filmmakers want to use this debate in order to get most of their audience riled up about the need for voting reform, yet they know that focusing too heavily on it would bring about accusations of liberal bias.
But shouldn’t investigating “how” – or frighteningly enough, “if” – the US voting system works be important enough to transcend partisan politics? Beverly Harris, the heroine of the documentary, wisely, I would say, never announces her own political affiliations, and she makes it clear that both Democrats and Republicans have every right to be suspicious of the dangers of electronic voting. She insists that in her home county, it’s the Republicans who are accusing Democrats of fixing the vote. An early vignette shows a frazzled Republican candidate investigating voting machines and discovering that pressing the button for her selects a different name, instead.
But Hacking Democracy isn’t an expose of a single debacle. It’s an indictment of the entire system, zeroing in on the scariest aspect of electronic voting: that even if someone did manage to corrupt the vote, there would be no record left behind to show that anything had been changed. No examination of the results could ever prove that a hacker had taken American democracy for a ride.
Bev Harris, a self-described “grandmother activist” who holds the center of our attention in this documentary, didn’t exactly have a long history of interest in the voting process. When her county purchases an electronic voting machine, Harris decides on a whim to do an online search of related voting glitches. When she comes across numerous stories of suspicious errors and outright horror stories about the machines, she takes matters into her own hands and founds Black Box Voting, a non-profit group dedicated to investigating the accuracy of the electronic voting process. And during this course of action, she becomes an enemy of the Diebold Corporation, makes of the electronic voting machine.
Every good movie – documentary or fictional – that advocates social change seems to require a slimy, all-powerful company as its chief villain, and the suits at Diebold don’t disappoint. Several of its executives are revealed as major contributors to the Republican party, and the CEO of the company even wrote a letter to George W. Bush before the 2004 election ominously promising to “deliver the vote of Ohio” to him. Whenever representatives of Diebold are interviewed, they come off as untrustworthy weasels who converse only in corporate double-speak, insisting that all of the accusations against their technology and ethics are fabrications or in some way irrelevant.
Whether or not Diebold conspired to fix the 2004 election is left unresolved, probably due to a lack of hard evidence (although the film presents plenty of disturbing unanswered questions). Instead, Harris and Hacking Democracy intend to prove that the electronic voting machines are incredibly vulnerable to outside manipulation. It all comes down to one crucial design flaw: do the memory cards for each individual voting machine have executable programming on them, and thus, could be rewritten to corrupt an entire election? Diebold claims that the memory cards are read-only, and that the only way someone could hack into an election would be to alter each machine individually. But Harris hires a few computer specialists who take a look at the memory card’s programming and insist otherwise.
The grand finale is a mock election in which one of the computer geeks that Harris has recruited reprograms the memory card that’s been entrusted to handle everyone’s vote. The salient point isn’t just that the mock election is indeed fixed, but that there’s no evidence left behind to indicate that the votes were ever changed. Even the government official who supervised this demonstration admits, “I would have certified this election as a true and accurate result.”
What finally makes Hacking Democracy so galvanizing is its indictment of a mentality that has taken over just about every sector of American life from politics to corporate ethics: the widespread refusal to acknowledge any problem, to accept any responsibility for mistakes made, or to fix any error until a disaster occurs and enrages the public.
In the face of such duplicity, Harris is the sort of hero we desperately need. When she admits to her fear that she might be sued by Diebold – and that their family is barely making ends meet as is – or we see her sifting through garbage as her sole means of collecting information on Diebold’s financial records (which leads to their connections to the Republican party), we start to understand just what grueling, thankless work it is to do genuine good on the behalf of one’s country. But without activists like Harris or her compatriots watching the watchmen in order to ensure that our system is honest, who among us would know whether our votes counted at all?
The special features for the DVD of Hacking Democracy include 33 minutes of deleted scenes and short biographies of the filmmakers.